The Nature of Adultery Adultery is extramarital sexual activity of a certain sort. More precisely,
An activity A by x is adultery iff
(i) A-ing involves x engaging in sexual activity with y,
(ii) x is not married to y, and
(iii) x is married to z.
Note that x may intend to commit adultery but fail: x may attempt to engagein sexual activity with y but unwittingly engage in sexual activity with x’s spouse. Also, one can unknowingly commit adultery; x need not know that x’s A-ing involves x engaging in sexual activity with y.
The above definition appears to be on the right track. But there still remain a few open questions, such as those concerning whether y must be alive, whether y must never have been x’s spouse, whether y must have once been alive, whether x must consent to A-ing, etc. We can leave these questions unanswered for present purposes.
It is tempting to include in the definition of adultery that it is somehow bad or wrong. After all, the word ‘adulterous’ often has negative connotations – it is sometimes used pejoratively or derisively to criticize someone for their sexual behavior. But such connotations are not part of the definition of adultery: it’s not part of the nature or essence of adultery that it is bad or wrong. So defining adultery as bad or wrong would be a mistake.
To establish that adultery is (morally) wrong requires argument. Let us consider a few such arguments.
Two Arguments Against Adultery Promise-breaking Argument P1) Adultery requires breaking a serious promise. (P)
C) Therefore, adultery is morally wrong. (Q) Deception Argument P1) Adultery requires active deception (lying), passive deception (silent infidelity), or “deeper” deception (misleading communication). (P)
P2) If x requires deception of any sort, then x is morally wrong. (P Q)
C) Therefore, adultery is morally wrong. (Q) There are a variety of reasons to think that the second premise in each of these arguments is quite plausible. What about the first premise of each argument?
Open Marriage Suppose that x and y get married but do not make vows of sexual exclusivity. We can even suppose further that, on the contrary, x and y agree to be sexually inclusive. Not only do x and y mutually deny that they have any obligation to engage in sexual activity only with each other, but in fact they vow to engage in extramarital sexual activity (e.g., to engage in orgies or “spouse swapping”). Call any marriage which does not involve a vow of sexual exclusivity an open marriage.
The phenomenon of open marriage poses a problem for the above arguments. Since open marriages do not involve a promise to sexual exclusivity, the adulterer in an open marriage breaks no promise – though he/she is committing adultery, he/she is not being unfaithful. Nor is he/she being deceitful. This means that the first premise of each of the above arguments is false, and thus the arguments fail to establish that adultery is morally wrong.
Of course, this is not to say that adultery is always morally acceptable. Even if the above arguments fail to establish that all cases of adultery are morally wrong, they may succeed in showing that many (if not most) cases of adultery are morally wrong, namely, any case in which the adulterer is breaking a promise or being deceitful.
A Final Argument Against Adultery Many people believe that adultery is always morally wrong, and that this is not because it requires promise-breaking or deceit. Rather, they believe that adultery is morally wrong because it undermines the nuclear family and consequently poses a threat to society’s well-being. The argument proceeds as follows:
Protect the Children Argument P1) Adultery requires sexual activity outside of marriage. (P)
P2) If x requires sexual activity outside of marriage, then x is a threat to marriage. (P Q)
C1) Therefore, adultery is a threat to marriage. (Q)
P3) If x is a threat to marriage, then x is a threat to good child-rearing. (Q R)
C2) Therefore, adultery is a threat to good child-rearing. (R)